The offer by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militia earlier this month to enter into talks with the Pakistan government should have been welcomed by Islamabad with open arms. Instead, the Zardari government has remained largely silent to the offer.
"We will wait and see. I am not sure if this is a serious offer and whether we should respond to it," interior minister Rehman Malik told newsmen earlier this week.
There are many who question this offer which seems to have come out of the blue. Talat Masood, a defence analyst, insists that the response of the government is correct. "We should not welcome this openly without understanding better what prompted it. It may be that the TTP wants to regroup." Masood added that the government should not play into the hands of the extremists.
The TTP has been behind a string of attacks in the country, including audacious attacks on the country's fortified military installations.
Several thousand people have died at the hands of the TTP, a number of them being policemen and members of the military. The anger against the TTP runs deep in the country's security establishment.
The TTP made its peace overture this month through a video distributed to the local media. In this video, a TTP spokesman said that the militia wanted to enter into a peace dialogue but did not want to talk to the military directly because it did not trust the khakis.
The TTP said that the military is the "real power" in Pakistan and any peace deal would have to include them. At the same time, the militia said that since the army has broken agreements in the past, this time round it wanted to have in-between guarantors who would ensure that the army keeps its word.
The men who were named by the TTP as possible go-betweens include opposition leader Mian Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Jamiat-Ulema Islam (JUI-F) Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, Syed Munawwar Hasan. All three, which are right-of-centre parties, welcomed the offer but refused to act as guarantors, with Mian Nawaz Sharif saying that he cannot give assurances on behalf of the Zardari government. Maulana Fazlur Rehman said that dialogue should be held through a peace jirga immediately.
The government seems to have been put on the defensive with many quarters saying that by not talking to the TTP, the government was showing that it was not serious in a desire for peace. What was strange, said one commentator, was that while many were quick to attack the government, no one seemed to question the motives of the TTP. "They are not serious in their offer," commented political analyst Najam Sethi, who added that these tactics are not new.
The TTP seems to have adopted a two-pronged strategy under which, on the one hand, the militia wants to talk and, on the other, it continues to be on the offensive. One day prior to their offer, the TTP had attacked security forces in Serai Naurang, Lakki Marwat, which left 13 security personnel dead. The attack followed a series of high-profile targeted operations carried out over the past few weeks.
This is not the first time the government and the TTP will try and negotiate reconciliation. Over the past decade, the militants and different governments have made many attempts to clinch a truce. Every such effort has resulted in more bloodshed. The agreement on Swat is fresh in the minds of many. The government had agreed that the TTP manage Swat but under a pre-agreed system of governance. But this never took place and the agreement fell through.
Najam Sethi recalls how the TTP agreed to eject foreign nationals from its midst in exchange for millions of rupees. The money was given but the foreign militants never left. In many exchanges, captured TTP militants have been freed by the government in exchange for concessions. "The TTP has usually not followed up with its side of the bargain," insists Sethi.
Talat Masood says that in the past, the TTP has regrouped whenever it talked of peace. And then broke the agreement. This, he says, is what most military officials are wary of.
For the military which is currently in the middle of a costly offensive against the terrorists, the TTP's offer should come as a breather. But senior officials say this is not the case. The attacks have continued on military installations. They suspect that the militia is being hit militarily and that is why it wants to ease the pressure. On Friday, the TTP cautioned against this, saying that this was not the reason for their offer. But there are many who doubt this.
The military is also suspicious of the people that have been named as go-betweens. It has a prickly relationship with Mian Nawaz Sharif. And many high-profile terrorists have been recovered from houses of Jamaat-e-Islami sympathisers. More importantly, the military feels that it is now in the driver's seat and wants to press ahead with its advantage. It has been successful in isolating the TTP militarily and financially, say some. Officially, the military has declined to comment on the offer.
What remains to be seen is where the government will go from here. Under army pressure, it may not talk to the TTP. At the same time, it may move towards some understanding to ease the pressure on the country's deteriorating law and order situation ahead of the general elections.
But before that happens, much has to be done to prove it's worth the effort - most important being that the TTP convinces all of its sincerity this time round.